Monday, November 07, 2005

Where do Stories Come From?

How do we dive into the process of writing a short script?

Let's start at the beginning: the story. Where do we get ideas for our tales?

From stories passed down from generation to generation, to that stupid thing you did as a teen, we all have them - stories that entertain and amuse others. Some can and should be recorded for all eternity; ultimately those few gems may be spun into a short screenplay.

Where else can short scripts stem from? Short stories, poems, a seed of an idea, musical lyrics, even story-style jokes. I've written short scripts that sprouted from a family tale, from a seed of an idea, from a character I think I know, and from a poem. Anything that can evoke an image may have the ability to be spun into an entertaining script. Or at least serve as a jumping off point to another great script.

In my Introductory Screenwriting Course I ask each student to tell a story - one that has been handed down from generation to generation, or one that is recounted every time the same group of friends gets together. It's a fun exercise and a good way to open yourself up to the endless possibilities that may be turned into that next great short script.

Try it now, if you're game. Jot down a story that you have found amusing for a spell - or that your family has found humorous, even if it's at your expense. Feel free to share it here, if you like. I'll do the same later this week.

Thanks for stopping by.



Ernesto said...

This is a story that a guy remembers – he's in his thirties now – about something that happened during a hurricane in the Caribbean when he was in his late teens. The first few years after it happened, he used to tell the story all the time, along with a whole bunch of other stories that happened to him during that storm and the months that came before it and the months that came after it. Some of those stories were true, some were mostly true but bigger, some were mostly true but funnier, and some he honestly couldn't have said whether they were true or not. Like the memories we have of our early childhood, he's not sure sometimes if he remembers the actual event, or just remembers the story of the event so well it's as if he were remembering the event.

The night before the hurricane was supposed to hit he and a few guys went to a bar and listened to a sick-skinny mulatto man play guitar and the wind find its throat and begin to wail and he watched the palms begin to writhe on the open terraces of the little Caribbean city and he drank and drank, more than he imagines he could drink now and not die. Later he and his friend sat on the stones by the old yellow Dutch fort where, so many drunken nights, they'd eaten rice and beans from the roach cart and imagined ghosts walking the ramparts. The waves were coming in bigger and bigger.

It was time to go. That was what was the biggest, loudest idea in the guy's head. It was time to go, and the scope of the thing that was about to happen would make going possible, provide the excuse for that departure that had been necessary for months. The wind would finally blow hard enough to push him out of his wallow.

They didn't sleep that night, not that he can remember anyway. The next morning, the painter from the construction crew they worked on drove them around the island in his Jeep. Nobody was in his right mind anymore, and that made sense considering the state of the place.

In town, the corrugated roofs were peeling off the buildings like wax paper and the sailboats were, no shit, sinking in the cay; just taking one big wave too many and going up on one side and then down into the water. There was a walkway that stuck out over the water from the sides of the buildings that fronted the cay, and they strolled down it, even though bits of it were starting to give way.

In the center of town there were tourists in yellow slickers, looking scared and excited and confused. And there was a big deli truck and a lean, middle-aged black man selling hot dogs out of the back of it. The tourists were buying the hot dogs and they seemed glad that someone was doing something.

The kid talked to the hot dog vendor, but the man he grew into doesn't remember anything they said. Only that the kid talked to everyone back then, asked questions, thought he was gathering material. Never did anything with it. Then forgot it.

Later they drove up to the boss' ranch, high in the hills. The boss was lashed to the roof, nailing boards down to hold his tiles on. He was wearing khaki shorts and a khaki short-sleeved shirt and his short white beard was soaked and his gray hair was soaked and he waved and gestured like sergeant leading his troops out of a foxhole. "C'mon, boys," he yelled, and the wind staggered his words. "There's…"

Something, something. Work to be done. Who knew. They drove away, still out of their heads. Trees and telephone poles in the road, lives' savings vanishing under waves and shattered roofs and none of it meaning much more than the Mr. Toad's Wild Ride amusement park ride to people who didn't own anything or have any vested interest in anything more than what they were wearing and what they'd already drunk. They owed back rent for the apartment.

And when the guy remembers this story now, he sees something different in it than he did when he was nineteen, and he understands why the hot dog man stood out so sharply against the blur of memories from those days. It was because the hot dog man, and his old boss, too, had not been looking for an excuse to leave. And people who stayed, back then, always seemed too real to imagine.

Dana said...

Wow. Now that's a story. And especially poignant and powerful during this record breaking hurricane season.

The story reminds me of a chapter from Linda Greenlaw's "All Fishermen are Liars" book, though told in a slightly different manner.

There's a lyrical quality to the tale you tell, Ernesto. But with or without the poetry in your prose, this story is visual, powerful, and could easily be translated to a short script. Start practicing your Oscar speech. That's the real first step. Oh - did I neglect to mention that bit?

Thanks for sharing!

Dana said...

So which story shall I share? It's so difficult to narrow it to one. Think I'll opt for one I've been trying to translate to the screen for a while now.

He was barely two years out of college, working off school loans as a teacher in an inner city Cleveland school. Tough district - the kind of place where his track star attended every other day. Faithfully, but only every other day.

He took it upon himself to find his way to the slums a world away from the Cleveland he knew, where his white skin must have glistened like a pigment-challenged albino runt in a litter of black pups.

Had he checked the family's attendance records, the mystery may have revealed itself. But then he wouldn't have met the boys' incredible mother who did the best she could to provide for her two sons. However, pennies were few and far between in those early 1960's days, and the mother could only afford one pair of shoes for her sons. So every other day the boy whose turn it was to wear the shoes would make his way cross town to school.

When my father appearted yet again at the woman's door, a new pair of shoes in hand, pride was replaced by gratitude, and she thankfully accepted the gift that allowed both her boys to study every single day. In return, she gave him the only thing of value she had: a miniature tea cup that as a child I never could understand the significance of or why I couldn't play with it. Till his last day with us, the china cup sat proudly on his bureau, a daily reminder of all that he had to be grateful for in the world.

But the story doesn't end there. At least not for the coach and his track star. And it's funny, until a few minutes ago, I didn't realize it began with the shoes.

The track star was fast. So fast that his feet took him to New York City. Not that he or the city school teacher/coach could afford the trip. I recently learned the plane tickets and hotel were covered by a fellow coach: George Steinbrener.

At the airport the coach and runner were met by a limo. The car dropped the student athlete off at the hotel, and took my father - one very tough Italian - to play a round of poker with the city's mob boss.

As my father carefully and secretly counted cards (he could count up to four decks reliably), he made sure he didn't show disrespect by beating the boss or, worse, continually folding. The mob boss made my father an offer. It was one he had heard two years earlier from the Cleveland mob boss. He was invited to work for the family.

But there are only two ways to join the family, and while my father knew he wasn't born to the mob, he also knew he could not possibly do what would be expected of any new recruit: to seal the deal with a hit. He politely declined, finished the hand, and left with no ill feelings that he was aware of. Alive was enough for him, at any rate.

That's the story. As told to me by my father, a couple new pieces recently added by my mother now a much too young widow after cancer took our coach before he could even retire.

If I can get my arms around the story, it shall become the third in my trilogy of brushes with the mob short scripts based on my father's often recounted tales. THE PROVIDER, the second in the trio, may end up in production soon at the hands of a gifted and talented DGA AD...if we can swing the time and money required to make it so.

Okay. My story's told. Feel free to comment or share a tale of your you see fit.

Thanks for stopping in.

Dana said...

Just a quick clarification: no intention to tie Steinbrener to the mob. The car that picked them up was NOT the one that my father expected to see at the airport.

Oh - and a question to anyone in the know: is there a way to edit a post here? I noticed a typo in my story above. Oy!

Ernesto said...

Dana, great story. The shoes are a powerful hinge. There's also something scary, dark about your father's good deed being repaid by temptation... and the idea of a good deed being the first step on the path to a deed as dark as a hit... it's an irony that runs through so many human stories.

There is no way, according to blogger to edit a comment. You can delete a comment and then repost it. That leaves a little deleted comment message. As admin, you can even delete that if you want, to clean up the page. (Note my post above was deleted and reposted because I wanted to make a change.)

Mike, ESC!Publications said...

Hi Dana,

This is a very intriguing idea and one that my Dad and I have been trying to start up in a private "family" forum online. Unfortunately we've not had much success convincing others in the family to open up their memory vaults yet. :)

The family story is a critical piece of our history. I wonder some days how future generations will be able to study the early 21st Century. Will our digital letters (though I hesitate to call them such as the writers of the letters can't even be bothered with a proper salutation) to friends and family be preserved in some way that our descendents will be able to learn about how we lived and loved?

Imagine for a second if we did not have (or had no way to retrieve) the Civil War letters or ... those of Shakespeare!

It's time to get printing people!

Now ... what brought me here. I got your comment on my blog last night and the idea of running a segment from your dramedy on the CHTG Podcast is very interesting, but there might be a concern with my playing it. My e-mail address in on the blog site. Drop me a line to talk about it some more.

Great blog!


Heart Of Darkness said...

It's strange, how inspiration sometimes overflow people... I can be sitting at a bus, and just get the urge to write, even if I don't have anything to write on!

You would be surprised, how many bustickets have served as shorthand notes! :)

But whenever I sit in front of the computer, and I know I have to produce a certain amount of pages, I'm just blocked. Completely, irreversably... it's almost like somebody closes a door somewhere deep inside of me... and I can't find the key!

I find music inspirational. I turn on heavy metal when I need to think 'action', or sappy love songs when I need to think 'romance'. I guess when you're living such a dull life as I am, you have to live vicarously through others - may it be people you don't even know...

But I think what makes a good writer is the need to tell a story, and do it engaging enough for people to want to listen. And I do believe everybody have a story to tell...

Let me know what happens with you and your inspiration! :)

Fun Joel said...

Welcome to the so-called "Scribosphere." Looking forward to reading more!